Archive for the ‘Singer/songwriters’ Category


Shelby Lynne: “This shit doesn’t happen to Joni Mitchell”

October 30, 2011

I didn’t know for sure that I was going to Shelby Lynne’s solo concert at the Rio until the moment I bought a ticket at the door. That’s not my usual way.

Typically I get tickets at the exact millisecond that a presale starts to absolutely ensure I get in. But I couldn’t do that with this show because of circumstances. Miles was playing in a concert the very same night, all the way in Richmond, and I wasn’t sure what time it would be over. So as a supportive parent, I couldn’t commit to Shelby. Luckily, the band Miles was in (BCMEA Honour Jazz Ensemble, which sounded great by the way), played first before the choir that we really didn’t need to hear. So as soon as Miles packed up his gear (drummers always take a long time), I shooed the family out of the church where he played, dropped mother off, dropped the family off, and high-tailed it to the Rio.

I even got a seat in the third row of the classic old theatre. As it turned out, I was about 25 minutes early. That whole time before the concert began Lynne’s music played through the PA. It was her new album, Revelation Road. I overheard a man behind me say that the entire album had cycled through three times, and he had never heard anything like that at zillions of shows he had attended over the years. It was in fact odd to hear recorded songs that we were about to hear live. Whether it was for marketing purposes, or due to a lack of imagination, playing the headliner’s music before the gig was a misguided decision.

Why I wanted to be at the show: I have a thing for female singer/songwriters like Lynne, her sister Allison Moorer, Tift Merrit, Patty Griffin, and Julie Miller, who all have country roots but don’t necessarily stay where they came from. I saw Lynne perform at Richard’s on Richards (miss that place) in 2008. It was a much different show, with a band, that focused on songs from her Dusty Springfield tribute album (Just a Little Lovin’). And I liked it, a lot, mainly because of Lynne’s spot-on singing and stage presence.

A clip from Lynne’s Portland show, the night before performing in Vancouver (and wearing the same vest):

Why I enjoyed the Rio show:

The evening started slowly, with the odd choice of pre-concert music, and she looked and sounded kind of indifferent during her first few songs. But Lynne loosened up, especially after she picked up a guitar that clearly wasn’t tuned the way she wanted it. After her guitar tech grabbed the guitar to give it another go, Lynne said, in a deadpan voice: “This shit doesn’t happen to Joni Mitchell.”

Later, someone requested “Old #7”, a great drinking tune from her Tears, Lies, And Alibis album. Lynne shot darts in the direction of the requester and said “I don’t normally take requests.” Then she proceeded to perform the song.

She won me and the rest of audience over with both incidents. Lynne can be very gracious with audiences, but she also has an edge that makes her so interesting.

Other reasons why I enjoyed the Rio show:

  • She did “Killin’ Kind”, which is a perfect pop song, and “Leavin'”, which is a perfect soul song.
  • Lynne performed solo – accompanying herself on guitar – which isn’t all that rare, but I still marvel at the ability of artists to do it. I know I would be scared shitless.
  • She was generous in giving a fairly long show, starting with tunes from the new album (hmmm … sounds familiar) and thanking the audience for listening to the new material, then giving a cross-section of songs from her career.
  • Lynne talked just the right amount between songs, giving context to some tunes, and indirectly conveying the sense that she’s found her way through challenges.

Next time I’m buying a ticket right away.

Another clip from Portland:


My Olympics Soundtrack: Part 2

March 24, 2010

At one point during Martha Wainwright’s show at the Commodore last week the songstress abruptly stopped mid-song. She called out two men in the audience who were on the verge of pummeling each other over some sort of disagreement. This was happening about four feet from where I stood. Wainwright asked if they were having an “alter-fucking-cation” in the middle of her song. She told them to cease and desist and reminded them it was a “folk concert”. Not long after security swooped in and moved them out, she sang her hummable hit “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”. How appropriate.

The scene illustrated why I admire Wainwright: she’s feisty and does what she feels like. Don’t get me wrong – the colorful language is only one side to her. Wainwright sang beautifully throughout her solo show at the Commodore, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. The Cultural Olympiad show was Wainwright’s very first concert since the death of her mother – the great Kate McGarrigle – in January. But aside from searching for the right chords on one song, there was no hesitancy in her delivery; she sounded as committed to her art as ever.

Here’s Wainwright in London, back in January (a week before her mother died), doing a classic song from Edith Piaf’s repertoire, “L’Accordioniste”. Wainwright didn’t do the tune at the Commodore, but she’ll be at our jazz festival June 26 with her Piaf project, featuring lesser-known songs by the French icon. That will be a must-see concert.

The next night I went to one of the last Cultural Olympiad shows: pianist Hilario Durán’s Latin Jazz Band at Performance Works. Weeks ago when I saw who would be in the big band – a mix of players based in Toronto, Vancouver, Cuba and elsewhere – I knew it would be a stellar show. Aside from Durán, who exemplifies the technique and artistry of top musicians from Cuba, the group included flutist/soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett. I’ve heard Jane play live and interviewed her many times, so I’m very familiar with her consistently high musicianship and passion for Cuban music. Then there’s tenor saxophonist Phil Dwyer, who is always a treat to hear. But perhaps the biggest draw was Changuito, a legendary Cuban percussionist who was a member of Los Van Van.

They all played with fiery intensity on the challenging arrangements. Other standouts were trumpeters Alexander Brown and Vancouver’s Miguelito Valdes – who both effortlessly hit the high notes – and suave singer Luis Mario Ochoa. I brought young Miles, who somehow started nodding off during the first set despite the supercharged music. But he stayed awake long enough to appreciate what was going down. I’m especially glad that Miles the drummer got to hear the 62-year-old Changuito display his timbales mastery.



January 14, 2010

What’s with all the untimely deaths of influential musical artists in recent weeks? First Vic Chesnutt left us on Christmas Day, then Lhasa de Sela on New Year’s Day, and the latest just yesterday: Jay Reatard.

I don’t really know Chesnutt and Reatard’s music, but I’m a huge Lhasa admirer, so I was devastated to hear about her death from breast cancer at the age of 37. When I saw a tweet about it, I didn’t want to believe it. I had no idea she was battling the disease for 21 months.

I first heard her music in June 1997. I was deciding which artist to interview for the Vancouver Courier in advance of that summer’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival, and after hearing tracks from her debut album La Llorona, I knew she had to be the one. I was completely entranced with her acutely intense vocals in Spanish and the music that combined ranchera, klezmer and more in a style that couldn’t be categorized. Lhasa, a Montrealer with Mexican-American roots, was a joy to interview and turned out to be one of the hits of the folk fest.

I interviewed her again in 1998 and over the years caught probably all of her Vancouver shows. I can even remember the exact venues: the Vogue Theatre, Starfish Room, Richard’s on Richards and the Commodore in a dream double-bill with Calexico. That show, in 2004, was the last time I heard Lhasa perform live. She was a generous performer who upped the intensity even more on stage.

I’ll end with some quotes from the articles I wrote on Lhasa:

On why, at the time, she preferred singing in Spanish:

“Physically, the voice comes from a different place. It’s kind of more torn out of the entrails. It’s more profound in some way. Also, I think the whole kind of poetic aura of the language is very emotional, very evocative. That’s why it’s such a rich language to perform and sing in.”

On why audiences connect so strongly with her singing and stage presence:

After a long pause, she says it’s hard to answer the question without sounding arrogant. But then Lhasa offers an explanation for why she and her bandmates strike resonant chords. “I think there are a lot of entertainers out there. We’re not entertainers at all. For me it’s something more mysterious than that. I don’t know if there are a lot of people who completely give themselves, heart and soul, to music like we are constantly trying to do.”


A Gift from Aimee Mann

October 14, 2009

I’ve decided that there’s no in-between with Aimee Mann: generally speaking, people have either never heard of her or they’re obsessively into her music. I’m squarely in the latter camp. I have all of her albums and I’ve seen her perform live about five times. When I got the chance to interview her for the Vancouver Courier, I was incredibly nervous. More nervous than I was with pop star Bryan Adams, jazz star Diana Krall and Indian classical giant Ravi Shankar. Why? Because I admire her as an affecting singer/songwriter who has a refreshing outsider attitude when it comes to the music industry. So I didn’t want to stumble and ask a dumb question. (Thankfully, the interview went swimmingly.)

For us hardcore Aimee Mann followers, her concert at the Commodore last week was a gift. I’m describing it that way because it wasn’t a typical show, where the artist mainly does material from a recent release. That wasn’t going to be the case because Mann’s last album, @#%&*! Smilers, came out in mid-2008. Instead, Mann came up with an interesting approach: the first half featured songs she doesn’t typically perform live, from throughout her catalogue. Mann performed those tunes with just two keyboardists/multi-instrumentalists: Jebin Bruni and Jamie Edwards. In the second half they played nothing but requests, which audience members wrote down on little pieces of paper. Vancouver drummer Barry Mirochnick, who’s currently with Neko Case and has also played with Veda Hille, joined the musicians for these songs on a minimalist kit.

This was a dream scenario for me. I knew every single tune performed that night, and familiarity is comforting. It was also a treat to hear rarities like “Nightmare girl” and way-back gems like “Amateur” and even “Voices Carry”, which dates back to Mann’s ‘Til Tuesday period.

Then there were the keyboards scattered around the stage. Smilers featured Bruni and Edwards on keys and not a single electric guitar note, which was a departure for Mann because she always had strong axemen in her band. Mann is still in that keyboard space, so for me as a keyboard lover, it was wonderful to hear these proficient players create resonant textures. As for Mann’s voice, she started a bit rough but quickly got better as the night progressed. In between songs, she was at her engaging best, self-deprecating and funny, dropping F-bombs freely.

It would have been fun to hear a cover, but she declared at the beginning of the all-requests portion that they weren’t going to do “Free Bird” or “Taking Care of Business”, covers she did at her last two Commodore concerts. And she didn’t follow through on the repeated requests for Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher”. The night was all about her timeless songs, her singular voice and the band’s musicianship, so nothing more was needed.

Mann, Bruni and Edwards doing “Save Me” – from the Magnolia soundtrack – at Seattle’s Moore Theatre, the night before the Vancouver gig:

Bonus links:

A review of Mann’s Commodore show, with some good pics, at Discover Vancouver

Photos of the show at Guttersnipe


Dan Mangan at the Cultch

September 2, 2009

I caught one of the two sold-out concerts that Vancouver’s Dan Mangan performed at the renovated Cultch last weekend, and it was a glorious show.

Everything came together that night: Mangan’s well-honed confidence as an impactful performer; his ease and sense of humour when talking to the audience between songs; Mangan’s rapport with his strong band; the rare treat of hearing three horn players and a three-member string section expand the sonic palette; the added bonus of having Shayne Koyczan in the house to inject his spoken word mastery; being back in the beloved Cultch for one of the first concerts since it was massively renovated; and the euphoria of being at a sold-out show for a hometown boy who’s making good.

Seven months ago I hadn’t even heard of Mangan. Then a new friend talked glowingly about his music and eventually recommended that I go to the Cultch show. Only after buying tickets for the gig did I actually listen to his music, starting with Mangan’s Roboteering ep and then his debut album, Postcards and Daydreaming. I liked what I heard, especially on Roboteering. There’s a fine line between what Mangan does and what someone like David Gray does, and Mangan is on the right side of that singer/songwriter line. By right, I mean he avoids clichés that are an occupational hazard of his genre, and he stays connected to an alternative DIY sensibility.

This is quite the time for Mangan: he’s deservedly getting rave reviews for his new album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice, including one in the Province that ranked him at the level of Nick Drake! (Dan’s good, but not that good. Not yet anyway.) Plus there he was on the cover of the Georgia Straight. I imagine that receiving this much attention could make it challenging to remain grounded. Just listening to Mangan talk during the show – he’s so damn likable – makes me think the 26-year-old won’t go Kanye West (i.e. ego trip) any time soon.

My usual source for videos of gigs is out-of-town and missed the show (which she would have loved), but I found some decents vids that someone took:

Mangan’s “hit single”, “Robots”, which he somehow managed to F-up, forcing him to stop mid-song and start again. But the way he handled it was so endearing that no one cared:

“Tina’s Glorious Comeback”:

The very intense “Tragic Turn of Events/Move Pen Move”, featuring the performance poetry of Shayne Koyczan:


Leonard & Avan

April 27, 2009

I’ve been trying for more than a week to think of something original to say about Leonard Cohen’s concert at GM Place on April 19. In every review of the show I’ve glanced at, writers have raved about the 74-year-old’s performance. I completely agree with them – it was a superb, three-hour show, which confirmed Cohen’s status as a national treasure. But that doesn’t make for a very interesting blog post.

Then I thought of something, and it came to me at a completely different type of concert. Through serendipity, we got free fifth row tickets for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s season debut at the Orpheum on April 25. The evening’s main event was Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43”, featuring 21-year-old pianist Avan Yu (who looks like he’s about 15). I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be to perform something as mind-blowingly difficult as the Rachmaninoff work, but from my prime seat, I could see that Yu had no fear. And thanks to the big screens mounted at either side of the Orpheum stage, I could also see that his fingers were flying.

Yu’s technique is so advanced that he doesn’t have to think about the mechanics of where to place his fingers; he can just focus on bringing out the soul of the music. While marveling at Yu’s technique, I thought of a moment in Cohen’s concert. It came during “Tower of Song”, when he played a keyboard that sounded like a toy instrument. He played a solo that consisted of a very simple, slightly bluesy, slowly played line.

In the time that it took Cohen to play that solo, Yu could have played a zillion notes. But Cohen has his own kind of technique, which informs his singing, songwriting, poetry and piano-playing. It’s a rare technique that combines soul, wisdom, humour, spirituality and humility. So because of that technique, Cohen’s toy solo impressed me as much as Yu’s virtuosity. Both are valid and both made a lasting impression.

Yeah, OK, that wasn’t especially profound. But at least I found a way to link Leonard Cohen and Avan Yu. I bet that’s a first for the blogosphere!

Jian Ghomeshi’s excellent interview with Cohen, who was a tad more cooperative than Billy Bob Thornton:

I could only find one YouTube video of Avan Yu, and despite the poor sound quality, it demonstrates his phenomenal technique: